Saturday, December 25, 2021

Some Notges on Inevitability

 Not too many writers or composers of whom you can admire for their ability to use the right word at the right time, the appropriate note in the immediate moment.  Mark Twain and Willa Cather stand as your standards for that type of composition.  Surely the late, lamented Joan Didion, the yet productive Deborah Eisenberg and Francine Prose define that category for you.

Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, and, more recently, Maurice Ravel, fill those musical needs.  You can read the mentioned writers or listen to the musicians for the immaculate power of choking the next, inevitable moment in a composition, a fact that denders them beyond inventive or melodic.  You read and listen for inevitability.

When you have written something, you scurry back over it, looking for what Flaubert called "the right word," le mot juste.  

You owe your morning routine now to Francine Prose, who, via an interview, revealed to you her pleasure at the daily "Spelling Bee" feature in The New York Times.  You are given seven letters, two of which are vowels, inclusive of a letter in the center, which may be either vowel of consonant.  Your job is to pick as many words out of that seven-letter panoply as you can.  Words must be at least tour letters long.  No proper nouns. You earn points, one for a four-letter word, as many as fourteen for longer words.

The "Spelling Bee" has for the moment eclipsed your interest in the crossword puzzle.  There are hundreds, thousands of words sifting about in the unused spaces of your brain folds.  When you attempt this fresh puzzle each day, you're reminded of the words you know and do not use unless they appeal to your non-rational sense of fit.  Yes, of course you use some logic,some memory when you select a specific word,  You rely on your individual sense rather than the dictionary's assigned priority of the meaning and use of a word.

You're fondness for the music of Maurice Ravel comes from the beyond rational understanding of tonality, into the inevitability of how his phrases take you toward a celebration of emotions. You read and reread Twain and Cather, Eisenberg, Prose, Mansfield, beyond the story.  You already know how the story ends.  You reread for the feeling.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when you listen to the first four segments of Noble and Sentimental Waltzes or At the Tomb of Couperin you have been taken on a journey that leaves you at the desired destination, charged, enthusedtransformed from your everyday self to your composing self, eager to chose words that will provide a pathway to inevitability.

Friday, November 26, 2021

A Promotion to the Bigger Sandbox

When you attended your favorite elementary school, you looked forward to the time when you would be shifted from the smaller play area and its smaller sandboxes to the play area on the east side of the main building.  There awaited not slides not swings but large wooden packing crates in which the mere setting of a foot caused an immediate transformation and a major supplement to the imagination.

You are of an age from whose heights you can see traces of evolution in the social and cultural forces that forged you or, better still, caused you to forge behaviors, attitudes, techniques.One such cultural force was the era of printed materials into which you were born, an era where the so-called "Pulp" magazines flourished.

Although you fancied comic books as a younger reader, this pulps lit up news stands and magazine racks with a dazzle of color and adventures opening the outskirts of such terrains as the Western, the mystery, the "other' worlds of science fiction, and those shrewd, beguiling outskirts of fantasy in which things were as they seemed until they became portals to other universes and rules of behavior.

Your early hopes for publication offered you realistic rates of payment, both financial and artistic terms.  If you wrote well, you might be paid as much as a penny a word.  Someone who read such a story might remember it with fondness for a few days after reading.

A recent trip to the Amazon books page caused you to see one of the many effects of your previous age and your present one. There, along a book you'd written under the pseudonym of Craig Barstow back in those speculative, adventureous days of 1961, offered itself as an item for sale in the same panel as a book you wrote under the same pseudonym, which will be published in February of 2022.  No typos there.  A sixty-one year gap.

The publisher for the first book has long since vanished from the list of active producers of novels in a publishing era that might well be called "the massmarket paperback era."

This is not to say that your forthcoming novel will be in any form other than a massmarket paperback, but the former had a fifty-cent price while the latter lists for seven ninety-nine.

The years have been good to the earlier work; it now lists for fourteen dollars (none of which you will see as a royalty or merest acknowledgment of your efforts).

Your takeaway from nostalgia after viewing the two titles in such proximity--at the time of writing the first, you were aware of the desire for a sufficient speediness to allow you to write enough words per month to pay for rent and groceries.  Your rate of production has vastly declined because of your immediate goal now.  Every word must earn its keep.  Every scene must interest you, keep you alert, wondering what those individuals of your creation are up to.  What will they do next, and how well will you be rewarded for the outcome of their interactions.  No amount of money can pay for anything less.

Thus have you moved from the small sandbox for writers to the larger one.

When you removed your shoes after a day in the small sandbox, your toes were covered with granules of sand.  When you remove your shoes from a day of working at this stage of your life, your toes are covered with the granules of unfinished narrative.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Eine Kleine Nacht Music

 In your long history of attempts to put words on the page with meaningful outcome, you've had numerous encounters with the necessary element in the publishing equation, the editor.  One of the earliest editorial comments on your work you remember--after all these years--came after you'd turned in copy on schedule for a regular column in the now defunct Citizen-News, a newspaper circulated through the western segment of the Los Angeles of your upbringing.

The editorial comment: a diagonal line running through each of the four pages you submitted. No other words were necessary. You understood their meaning. The editor who drew these diagonals took added moments of his time to write these words "Too long. Too wordy. Cut."

Between that editorial experience and the present moment in which you compose this, you have experienced more encounters with the editorial process than you can remember. Indeed, you cannot say except to make wild guesses about the numbers of essays, reviews, short stories, and novels you have published.

In the space between that early memory, you have another, at least five years later. Another kind editor at a now defunct publication in the so-called confessions magazine category wrote you a note accepting a "confessional" you wrote, telling you a check was enclosed in keeping with the five-cents-a-word pay rate. She went on to remind you that she'd rejected nearly four-fifths of the submissions you sent her because, among other things, they were too funny. She reminded you that most of her regular authors had a much higher rate of acceptance.  "You don't write to confess," she wrote, "you write to laugh. Think how much happier you'd be if you wrote for publications where laughter had greater value than confession."

Between that note and the most recent note from a personediting you, circumstances have changed. You've been editor in chief of five different book publishers, an executive editor of at least three literary journals, and even now are the poetry editor of a literary journal.

In more recent years, a collection of your short stories found its way into publication. In an exchange with the publisher, you gave reluctant agreement to the translation of the title used for this blog post into its English translation, "A Little Night Music."  That story concerns a troubled musician in the midst of his discovery of love, appreciation, and acceptance. The location is quite specific, the bed of the person with whom he encounters these valuable conditions.  In the background, he hears what at first sounds like a large, wounded animal.  He later discovers the sound is his host's ex-husband, whom she had to rid herself because of, among other things, his tendency to violence. Hence the title, made even more ironic, to your sensitivity, with the Mozartian title and subsequent publication in German.  You have a cultural DNA that renders you uncomfortable even at this remove when you hear German being spoken.  All the more reason to use the Mozart title rather than the English title.

At the moment you write this, a novel is due in a matter of weeks, an editor has just sent you a setof page proofs for one last chance at changes or finding typos. Indeed, you found a typo in the spelling of the publisher's name. Your goal is to make the novel under way the best thing you've written.  You have the equivalent of the most recent novel in page proofs as an example of something you hope to improve upon.

All these years, your nature has never been one project at a time. Thus this project you work on in odd moments while reading final proof on a recent novel and working on what you hope to make the best outcome yet.  This "other" project is a short story, "La Fie aux Cheval du Lin," clearly French, its title the exact title of the French composer, Claude Debussy.  French is by no means whatsoever your native language or any language over which you have some control.  To the extent that you might be able to play "Chopsticks" on a piano, you have some awareness of French words.  So why not call the story "The Maid with the Flaxen Hair"?  There is a maid with flaxen hair in the story. Her effect on the protagonist and hison her are heavy.

You first became aware of the song when you were wildly in love with a maid with flaxen hair, hoped to marry her, hoped to exchange effects for the remainder of your lives.  The song was introduced to you by a piano player who used the French title. You'd never heard of the title or the melody. Nevertheless, it evoked a vision of the maid with flaxen hair of whom you write here.

You wish this story to become the most insightful, evocative, and memorable of your long career. You are already at work, arguing with an unseen editor, determined to keep this title in French.

All you have as a consequence of the seventy-odd years you've spent trying to get things down on the page in some meaningful way is the notion that each thing you attempt must be approached with the goal of making it your best yet.

You are fortunate in your literary agent; she is a gifted editor. You've only moments ago looked at her "suggestions" on the first five chapters of your work in progress. The editor who sent you page proofs of the last completed novel has had reasons to show exasperation with you--as well, you have reasons to show exasperation with some of her suggestions.

You still have, working on your behalf, over a span approximating seventy years, that generous man who drew diagonal lines--delete lines--through your copy.

And you have yourself, with a greater sense of what to do and what not to do when you begin to compose.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Ave Atque Vale, Angela. Hardly Knew You

Under ordinary circumstances, when you bring a newcharacter on stage for appearance in a novel or short story, you putter with your equivalent of a casting call, build an individual with traits and talents in some relationship to the story. Your first chore is to make sure there is some form of chemistry between that character and the protagonist.

Next step--you do a quick survey of individuals you've known in real life, whisk away some of that character's traits, shake the way a seasoned bartender shakes a cocktail, then you begin to write. As specific examples of this process at work, a former publisher for whom you worked and a former department head at a university you taught have turned into an aggregate of a quirky, self-involved sort of antagonist, someone the protagonist must suffer to some degree with each encounter.

Enter Angela Ayers, who came to life only two days ago as a means of bringing historical and attitudinal information on stage relative to a fictional town in New Mexico for your current project, The Robber Barons.  When you began sketching a few notes for her, you realized she is entirelyfrom whole cloth. You don't know anyone from real life who in any way approximates her.  You wish, in fact, that there were someone like her because you would immediately have a crush on her.  That said, you put her to work. You were not surprised to discover, after you reviewed yesterday's pages, that your protagonist has a crush on her. He's not quite aware of the fact, but he surely will come to realize the chemistry of his attraction when he catches himself wondering if he can lure her from Albuquerque, where she runs a ladies' clothing emporium, to San Francisco, where her education, attitude, and intelligence could lead her to even greater levels of achievement.

The thing he doesn't know about her yet--but will soon discover--is that her father was not adverse to robbing the occasional train in Texas or the Arizona Territory. You only discovered this a few days ago. Given her polar-but-largely-admiring regard for her father, Angela also tried her hand at holding up a train, found herself enjoying the experience to the point where she did it again, and yet again.  Thus she has become an invention of such singular importance that an outcome for her you'd not considered will have to be put into play.  She has to go, which is to say she needs to be killed off. You have no idea how this will come about, but you have forty or fifty thousand words of text in which to make your discovery.

This represents the uncomfortable parallel between creating stories, with which you have some experience, and playing God, with which you have neither experience nor art. The closest you can approximate the former experience with the experiences of real life resides on the loves and losses you've experienced all these many years. You've lost grandparents, parents, friends, lovers, animals; you've lost a beloved sister and a beloved wife.  One of the many reasons you're embarked on this book at all is to get a sense of a contemporary character, the 2020's, as it were, and his grandfather. You already know how your grandfather character is going to take the loss of Angela Ayers. You've been there, done that. Now, you get to write about it.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Days of Wine, Roses, and Shot Sheriff's

Your first formal step taken toward becoming a writer of fiction came when you signed up for the course in creative writing offered by one of the most popular teachers in the Fairfax High School (7850 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA) of your day. Herman Quick left you with a rousing number of memories. He'd just come off a successful diet to lose weight. Your experiences of him involve a thin, natty dresser. Indeed his trademark was the double-breasted suit.

At Quick's suggestion, you bought--and to this day treasure--a book with the inspirational title, How to Write Magazine Fiction.  Written by a man who worked both sides of the street. By one of his names, he was editor for a prestigious scholarly press. By another of his names, he indeed wrote for magazines.

The advice from Herman Quick, "Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph," had a broad acceptance in How to Write Magazine Fiction .  You set forth at a blistering pace to shoot various sheriffs in numerous first paragraphs. Indeed,over seventy years later, here you are, in the midst of a two-book contract to deliver stories where there are sheriffs, lawmen, and private investigators such as operatives for the PinkertonAgency.

You in fact are fresh from having attempted to purchase from Amazon's book division a book you acquired in your role as editor in 1965 and was published early the next year. The book, The Pulp Jungle,was a memoir of Frank Gruber's early years writing for magazines that got their generic name from the fact of their printing on a low-grade, acidy paper commonly referred to as pulp.  The idea for this book came about when Gruber delivered to you a manuscript, Brass Knuckles, which was a collection of his crime stories featuring a character named Oliver Quade, also known as "The Human Encyclopedia."  Somewhere in the editing process, you'd observed to Gruber that these reprinted stories, gathered here for the first time, merited an introduction.

After you'd read the manuscript of the introduction for Brass Knuckles,  you phoned Gruber, who, as you recall, was at a television studio, serving in his own editorial capacity as story editor of the ongoing TV series, Tales of Wells Fargo.  "Just wanted to say," you said, "that this introduction could very well be expanded to, let's say fifty or sixty thousand words and, thus, your first book length work of nonfiction."

Gruber, being the man he was, said, "Not entirely true, kid."  He called you kid. You were in fact thirty-four. At the perspective from which you now write, he was correct to call you kid. He reminded you that he'd published a biography of the iconic Western writer, Zane Gray, and had self-published a biography of Horatio Alger.  "Bring you a copy of the Alger next time I see you," he said.  "Autographed, of course."  "Of course, you said." Then you went on to ask when your next visit would be.

"Couple of weeks," he said.  "Let's make it three." By which he meant that he'd bring in the manuscript for the source of these mamories, The Pulp Jungle."

In actuality, he needed a month. He seemed to have forgotten one of the two mysteries a year he write for the then publishing house of Dodd, Mead.

Last time you looked, the going price for a copy of The Pulp Jungle was $435.  Abe Books, this morning, offered a signed copy for $1, 250.  They'd also get you connected with an unsigned copy of Brass Knuckles for $45.

Gruber was not your only connection with this kind of hardboiled writing. You also had dealings with his good chum, Steve Fisher, with a noted contemporary, Bill S. Ballinger, and such glorious others as Robert Turner and Day Keene, even to the point of publishing another memoir from Keene's and, for a time, your literary agent, Donald McCampbell, Don't Step on it, It May Be a Writer.

Those were glorious days, times when you found yourself sitting across desks and tables with the daughter and son--in-law of another grand writer from those days, Frederic Schiller Faust, also known as Max Brand; with William F. Nolan, whom you single-handedly convinced to lower Logan's age from 30 to 21.  

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Details, Devils, and Sundry

 One of your favored concepts for your own composition, your teaching others to compose their own work, and your priorities for focus in your role of editor insists that the devil resides in details.  You've evolved your consideration of this notion to include the absolute equivalency between details and characters in your own composition.

Thus not only do the characters themselves plan, flail about, scheme, lie,  and indulge denial, there is a host of nouns and adjectives in orbit about them,offering distractions, life-saving vests, and solutions. More to the point, when you begin to edit your own work, the first things you look for are laggards, characters who serve no purpose and 

Monday, July 26, 2021


Dramas begin as daydreams, morph into night dreams before they are written on some medium, written, revised, then edited and published, where they are read, reread, interpreted.

Story is the cognac of our emotions, distilled for us to sip on, one beat at a time in the snifter of our inner experience. Story has become a life we savor inwardly in place of the life we lead.